A Day in the Life of a Freelancer
Lorraine Berry on the Way She Tries to Make a Living
“In the last-mentioned broad district included under the name Ancoats, stand the largest mills of Manchester lining the canals, colossal six- and seven-storied buildings towering with their slender chimneys far above the low cottages of the workers. The population of the district consists, therefore, chiefly of mill-hands, and in the worst streets, of hand-weavers.”
–Friedrich Engels, Condition of the Working Class in England
It’s commonplace for literary journals to interview well-known writers and, at some point, to ask them about their process, what their days look like.
When I was a younger woman, back in the days when I longed to call myself a “writer,” but knew that I had not yet established any kind of writerly authority to claim the mantle, I remember reading an interview with Graham Greene. He explained how he was able to write one novel per year: he told his interlocutor that he held himself to a standard of 500 words per day—no more, no less—and that, in the course of a year, that would produce a novel.
At about that same time, I was struggling to be a writer, an ambition that took a direct hit after being sexually harassed by my writing professor—although at the time, I thought it was my fault—I had even fantasized that if my life’s ambitions were to come true, some day I would live in a cottage by the sea, and I would support myself by writing.
Thirty years after that fantasy, I do live in a bungalow 300 yards from the Atlantic Ocean, close to a beach unknown to tourists. And I support myself with my writing. On one hand, I know that I am living a dream life, and in today’s parlance, I’m “grateful” for the way that my life has turned out.
So, why was I sobbing earlier this week as if I had awoken to discover that I was Willy Loman, being worn out by the constant struggle?
If someone were to ask me about my writing process, it would not bear any resemblance to Graham Greene’s. I am up most days between 4 and 5 am. I consider those wee hours to be my time for reading the news, surfing the internet, looking for new things to write about. Depending on how much time is already scheduled during my day, I may begin working on my first freelance article by 5 am, with the goal being that I will have the standard 800-1200 words for most internet content written, edited, and emailed to an editor by 9 am.
After I get the first article out of the way, I may spend an hour or two looking at various internet boards where editors post calls for material, and, if I have an idea for something I think will fit, I prepare and send off pitches. I also send pitches to editors with whom I’ve previously worked to see if I can sell them any new ideas for stories I have rattling around in my brain. I prepare pitches for future publications, too. Since I review books, I receive galleys months in advance. If I am trying to get an assignment reviewing a certain book, it means contacting a print magazine editor several months in advance. Different magazines are operating on different editorial calendars, so I time my pitches to whatever month each magazine editor is taking pitches for.
During the day, I also read: research materials, book galleys, follow online newspaper stories and current events, whatever material I may need to know in order to formulate ideas.
Sometimes, I sit down in front of my laptop at 4 am and, except to go to the bathroom or to make coffee, I don’t get up until mid-afternoon. I can’t remember the last time that breakfast or lunch didn’t comprise some type of meal replacement biscuits or cheese and crackers. I eat a decent dinner, but during the workday, there isn’t time to fix a healthy lunch.
What drives me through my day is panic. I have to hustle. I have to pitch every weekday in order to make certain that I always have work lined up.
The internet has created an enormous, yawping need for content. Each day, some sites are putting out the equivalent of a daily magazine. They are reliant on freelance writers to supply them with articles.
But for each 800-1200 words that I write for my usual clients, the average compensation I receive is between $100 and $150 for each article (a range of between 8 and 19 cents per word). I know I am lucky. I am able to consistently secure writing jobs that pay that much. I know from watching the boards that a lot of outlets are paying between $25 and $50 for the same number of words. As shocking as that low number is, lots of writers still compete for those slots.
The reason I hustle is simple. As a grownup with a car payment, rent, insurance, utility bills, and all of the expenses of daily life, I need to write 30 articles per month just to break even. And that covers my expenses, but doesn’t pay for extras like dinners out, clothes, or anything that isn’t a necessity. What keeps me from having to write 30 articles per month are those golden assignments that pay three to four the rates of ordinary articles. If I can manage one of those per week, it can help relieve some of the incessant pressure.
But the reason I was crying earlier this week is because of a feeling that never goes away. I am a writing assembly line. The thoughts come in one side, my brain processes them, I write them out longhand in my journal, tinkering as much as I can but always playing “Beat the Clock.” My editing is done while typing the article into the computer, and then it’s sent off to an editor. I cry because I feel like a worker on an assembly line churning out a product under the eye of the scientific clock of industrial capitalism. The prose I write is serviceable, but it doesn’t meet the standards of the artist within.
The writer within spent years in a graduate history program. Each day, inside my head, I encounter webs of connections between the events that are happening all around us and things that have happened in the past. I read a novel or collection of essays in order to review it, and before me I catch the disappearing tail of an idea. I scribble these ideas down. These coincidences. Or echoes. Archetypes. Sometimes, I’m reminded of mythology. Sometimes, I’m reminded of my dissertation research on the rhetoric that was used against witchcraft by Franciscan preachers in Quattrocento Italy. As a master’s student, I spent more time than anyone should have to researching the racist and sexist underpinnings of fascism in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. I’m also conversant in 19th-century European political philosophy, so what is happening in our country right now makes me want to sit down and write long and deep about the alarming ideologies of new American fascism.
I imagine having the kind of time where I could sit and write an essay that considers multiple ideas, something that would let my brain out to play, but which would allow me to feel like an artist, working with language to create something beautiful. Or further still, having the kind of time to write a book that would help to explain how political power has had an impact on people’s personal lives since the Renaissance.
I know it’s possible. I see those essays collected in books put out by small presses, or I read them in my favorite literary journals or journals of political thought. I imagine the amount of time that goes into crafting a work of art. I think about the novel manuscript sitting in a drawer and what I wouldn’t give for a couple weeks’ worth of paid time to work on it without needing to worry about my factory work.
If I could put money away, I could perhaps take some time off, but truthfully, I live so close to the edge that saving money is impossible.
It’s ironic to have achieved the fantasy of being a full-time writer making a living from writing. I know how fortunate I am, and how many people would gladly trade places with me.
But is it so wrong that I long to create something beautiful, to feel that something I have gotten paid to write represents my best work?
I cried earlier this week because an editor I really love working with returned an article to me. Rather than simply editing it, she expressed concern that I had come up with a “brilliant pitch,” but I had then spent the actual article trying to force the two new books I was supposed to be reviewing into the idea I had. How I seemed to be creating extra work for myself. That the essay had felt “rushed.”
I felt exposed. I felt as if someone had caught me rushing to complete a school assignment, not because I had procrastinated and left myself too little time, but because I had only been able to allot so much time on the assembly line to assemble the idea into an essay. Because I was in the mild state of panic that drives my freelance days, I wondered if this was the first snowball of an impending avalanche of editors telling me that my work no longer measures up.
I make lists of the day’s goals. An important item on that list will be to finish whatever particular article I know needs to get out the door. I will sometimes mention specific publications that I think a particular idea will suit. Depending on what’s in my email, I may spend time writing to various book publicists to make sure I can receive an advance copy of a book that looks good. I scan the news looking for political events or a cultural occurrence I can write about, especially if the issue touches on a group of issues that I have some genuine expertise in, generated by grad school research, or years of reading, or even personal experiences.
During my reading time in the early morning, I also read cultural criticism by my favorite writers. I never begrudge them their bylines nor the attention their work attracts. I love it when writers whose work I love produce another piece for me to read and treasure, perhaps to learn from, perhaps to admire the writing style when approaching tender topics.
I know that most writers are trapped in the same hourglass that I am. Maybe other writers are like me on the content production line wondering when they’ll get the time to work on what feels like art, but many of my writer friends support their writing by teaching at the university. I had more than one former colleague tell me that between preparing lesson plans, meeting with students, grading student papers, and the usual bureaucratic work of the university, they had no time to write or to read. I know that summers become precious, although those days can fill up with obligations.
Once again, writing feels like it may be stacked against the working-class writer. Without benefit of independent wealth to support you while you write, how does art get made?
One of the most pleasurable parts of my day is also one of its most destabilizing. On more days than I can count, I have begun writing and researching before dawn, and have stayed focused and intent on what I’m doing until I realize it’s already late afternoon. Because I have commitments to my widowed mother, I am rarely able to work past 5 pm. Twelve hours has a habit of disappearing in the chasing of ideas and in searching for another way to earn money.
I work over the weekends, although I try to limit it to four to five hours per day. For the past several weeks, I have been waking up two or three times in the middle of the night, and sometimes I’m not able to resist the impulse to get out of bed and work at 1 or 2 am. I have thought that if I could find a way to live on a couple hours of sleep a night, that might supply me with some extra hours where I could practice being an artist rather than the machine operator who churns out content on the assembly line.
On the assembly line, where I take the books I’ve read, ideas I have had, research I’ve had time to do, and I put them together to produce the thousand words that feeds the machine, I worry that I haven’t got it right. Have I backed up my assertions with documented facts? What if I put together an argument and I’ve misunderstood it? It’s one thing to say something dumb in private. The stakes feel higher in a field where publishing something wrong might mean the loss of future work. But also, who wants to be responsible for adding teaspoons of poison to the sea of misinformation out there?
At the same time, one of the positives of writing against the industrial clock is that I have no time for doubt. I don’t mean that I invent facts. Rather, I mean that I have become more comfortable with asserting my authority to interpret or critique a text or to make an assertion about culture or politics. Rather than spending hours looking for expert after expert, book after book, that supports my words, I trust that the construction of an essay or article, or the use of shorthand to refer to a name or a theory, will back up my argument. The tyranny of the clock doesn’t have time for me to trace my research again and again onto the tracing paper; I have to be efficient in my choice of words and sources that validate my authority.
My family history lists men and women who were laborers, some skilled, some unskilled. Few of them possessed the sorts of jobs that required long periods of apprenticeships followed by membership in the guilds. In English census records that, so far, I’ve been able to trace back to the late 17th century, my dad’s people are listed. Most of them were born and died in the same small area within or around Manchester. They toiled their whole lives as pressers, welders, iron moulders, iron dressers, an asphalter’s laborer, a cotton winder, several coal miners, a char woman, a laundress. In 1841, Levi Thorley listed himself as a “potato dealer,” although ten years later he had become a “finisher for cotton,” presumably employed in one of the numerous Lancashire cotton mills. My mother’s people held similar jobs near Bury, Lancashire, with my grandmother’s step-father being a conductor on trams that went from horse-drawn to motorized during his career.
By the 20th century, my family was employed by the cotton industry or the airplane manufacturing industries. When my grandfather went off to North Africa in 1940 to fight General Erwin Rommel, my grandmother was left behind to continue her work on the line at Farey Aircraft, a job my grandfather had left to serve in the British army.
My father and his two brothers all went to college to become engineers. My father specifically to get a degree in industrial engineering so that he could change the manufacturing floor, transferring power back into the hands of the men and women who operated the machines.
I was thinking of my father and the science of manufacturing throughput time, the amount of time it takes for raw materials to pass through the manufacturing process and come out the other side as finished goods, as I calculated how long it took me to “produce” a piece of writing.
Last year, I was hired for shift work for an internet outlet that posts new material every day. It became clear that I didn’t have the skills to work there. In an eight-hour shift, I was expected to find a noteworthy item, research the breaking coverage of it, write an article of 600-1,000 words, including proper formatting of all relevant links, and the finding and Photoshop editing of appropriate images. From beginning of a search to the moment that a story went live was supposed to take less than two hours so that I could post four new stories per eight hour shift.
I was shit-canned when I kept getting hung up looking for research materials to confirm every new piece of information I was writing. I could only rarely write four stories in a shift, so I lost my job and was presumably replaced with someone quicker than I was. The purpose of the writing was supposed to be to try to sate the endless hunger for new content on the web. But the sense that I was churning out crap left me depressed at the end of each work day.
On the day I got fired—the first time in my life I had ever lost a job over performance issues—part of my ego was devastated, but the writer part of me felt that my editor had done me a favor. Saving me from a job that was causing me to lose sleep at night.
One of my favorite sensations is being immersed in writing, in the chasing of an idea and capturing it so others can see it on paper. So understand that I am not complaining that I spend my days writing about ideas. But it is also true that I am stood on an internet content assembly line where the measure of my worth is my ability to take the raw material of ideas—research, current events, new books, culture—and through the manufacturing process turn each of these raw materials into finished 1,000-word articles. At least one per day.
The best gigs for freelance writers are the print magazines, in which the glossy ones with big sales and lots of advertisers pay between one dollar and two dollars per word. But, the obvious issue is that because most print magazines are published once per month, the competition for the available freelance slots in those magazines is fierce. That’s not to say that the assignments are impossible to get, but just as it’s rare for a first-time fiction writer to get her short story published in the New Yorker, securing steady work with the print magazines requires different strategies.
And this takes me all the way back to that fantasy of being a writer. When I used to fantasize about the writing life, it wasn’t a fantasy of making a living by writing content for websites. (Obviously. I’m old enough that I was writing before the internet existed.) The fantasy was writing 500-words a day in service to writing a novel a year.
My biggest fear is dying before I finish the dream projects. In the meantime, it’s Saturday morning. A stack of advance copies is waiting for me to read. My second pot of coffee has just finished dripping. And that sensation that I’m still not the writer I want to be scrabbles the back of my brain. I push it away. There’s work to do.